Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Glory of the Thing Itself


Although I read widely in philosophy and appreciate much of it, there is one area of philosophical study, and a rather major one at that, that has left me perplexed and befuddled. Phenomenology. Early in seminary I remember picking up a volume of Husserl (I think it was Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology). I read the first ten pages and promptly put it down. It was like reading the opening pages of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Clearly there is a there there, something of import, perhaps even epochal, but for the life of me it remained impenetrable, opaque, impossible.

Have you ever felt this way? Put off by the insurmountable complexity of a book, a piece of art, a new skill to acquire? In any event, I did, and so set phenomenology aside, I thought for good.

Then, a serendipitous set of circumstances sent me back to phenomenology for a second look. My first stop: I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on phenomenology ( That helped, kind of. There's a reason people write encyclopedia and dictionary and Wikipedia entries. They're concise and (hopefully) clear and helpful. They provide a map. In the case of phenomenology, however, this only took me so far.

Then, I had a big on-line discussion with some friends who teach theology and read lots of phenomenology. I worked out a bunch of my confusion by discussing phenomenology with them. I turned this discussion into a steampunk theology blog post

One friend said, "Phenomenology can't be gotten on the cheap." I considered this both a challenge and an invitation. So, I took the recommendation of my friends, and read the book that probably offers the clearest and most contemporary interpretation of the field of phenomenology, Jean-Luc Marion's Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. If you're going to read just one book as an introduction to this field (unless, of course you want to go the source, in which case Cartesian Meditations will do nicely), make this the one. It's not an easy read, but then again, Marion is a French phenomenologist. Clarity of prose is not a hallmark of French philosophy.

If you read Marion, you will learn that the definition of phenomenology is contested even by phenomenologists themselves. If we just take the trajectory of Husserl-Heidegger-Marion, we see that Husserl believed a phenomenon gives itself in intuition, Heidegger believes a phenomenon is disclosed through things, being itself, and Marion argues that phenomenon give themselves in their givenness. Things are their givenness.

Already I think you might be intuiting why this stuff is difficult, and why it cannot be gotten on the cheap. The reason it matters to Husserl, Heidegger, and Marion to "bracket" out as many consideration in order to consider "the things themselves" is simple in its complexity--they believe our approach to understanding, interpretation, and seeing the world hinges on letting things become manifest as what they are, without forcing our own categories on them.

Heidegger spells this out explicitly when he looks at the etymology of the word phenomenon. It comes from "phainomon," which means "what shows itself, the self-showing, the manifest." "Logos" (which produces the "ology" of "phenomen-ology") is that which is conveyed in speaking, and lets something be seen as something.

So why is it so important to return to the things themselves and let things become manifest as what they are, without forcing our own categories on them? For Marion, and really for all phenomenologists, the bracketing out of our own preconceived notions, perceptions, and more, in order to arrive at the thing itself, actually increases givenness. The more we return to the thing itself, the more we perceive what is given precisely in its giving itself, the more rich, full, "saturated" the phenomenon becomes.

Marion in his extensive work on phenomenology as phenomenology of givenness, calls this "saturated phenomenon." A saturated phenomenon has a surplus of intuition. As an amateur phenomenologist hearing Marion define a saturated phenomenon, I cannot help but think of things like glory and mystery. In some things, often in very ordinary things, there is simply more there there than we dare to imagine. In this sense much that is ordinary is simultaneously extra-ordinary.

The unique perspective phenomenology brings to things like glory is that the saturated phenomenon in its glory is precisely glorious in the mundane, the simple. In his book In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomenon, Marion considers such everyday phenomenon as a lecture in a lecture hall, friendship, paintings, and the human body. John Caputo says of saturated phenomenon, it is "[the idea that] there are phenomena of such overwhelming givenness or overflowing fulfillment that the intentional acts aimed at these phenomena are overrun, flooded—or saturated."

Or to take Marion in his own conceptuality, saturated phenomenon "cannot be aimed at," they are unforeseen and catch us by surprise. They "cannot be born," they are so overwhelming to our senses that they dazzle us. They evade any analogy of experience. They are for this reason difficult to depict or describe, and are, in a sense, visible but so bright that we cannot regard them. Finally, saturated phenomenon are so overwhelming that they invert the relationship between the phenomenon and the I. Instead of an object being subject to an "I", the "I" becomes subject to the phenomenon, even constituted by it.

That's phenomenology for you, and it certainly sounds abstract. But I can send us to a graphic novel that represents saturated phenomenon perfectly, and illustrates all the points above. Kevin Huizenga, in his Glenn Ganges comics, now assembled in the book Gloriana, if not intentionally commentary on the saturated phenomenon, is evocative of it.

Take, for example, the story "The Sunset." In this story, Glenn has an explosion of thought while experiencing a sunset (see picture). Huizenga designs a page that looks very abstract, even chaotic, to depict his experience. He says of it, "The idea was to hit you with an unexpected, almost physical feeling, when it changes, and then a series of wallops and crescendos and noise, and to have it feel almost like music, and then build up to a busy fold-out, and then fade back to 'normal.' A lot of it was doodling things and playing them off each other. I put the pages on the floor and played around with the rhythm until it felt close enough." (

In another story, "The Moon Rose," Glenn goes to considerable lengths to explain to a family standing in the street that a giant blood red moon they are seeing on the horizon is not a sign of the end times, but is instead a "saturated" scientific phenomenon that has puzzled theorists for centuries, and requires a fascinating set of psychological and scientific explanations to resolve. However, in the process of explaining the red moon, something new happens both in his perception of it, and their perception of him, and their perception of the moon, all of which leaves things even less explained than prior to his mini-lecture.

In both instances, readers of the graphic novel are given concrete examples of how the very mundane experiences of daily life cannot be aimed at; the moon and the sunset catch him and them by surprise. They cannot be born; they are so overwhelming to the senses that they dazzle the eye. They evade any analogy of experience; Huizenga struggles even to adequately depict them in the comic medium. They are for this reason difficult to depict or describe, and are, in a sense, visible but so bright that we cannot regard them. Finally, saturated phenomenon are so overwhelming that they invert the relationship between the phenomenon and the I. Instead of an object being subject to an I, the I becomes subject to the phenomenon, even constituted by it. Glenn, both in describing the moon to his neighbors, and his experience of the sunset, loses himself (literally because he is no longer even pictured in the comic frames) and so is constituted by the phenomenon even while trying to constitute it.

Huizenga describes the process of creating the comic this way, "Something clicked and I felt really high and good about what I was doing, not that it was necessarily very good or smart, but actually that it was kind of stupid and weird, and had taken on a life of its own, and I felt good about everything in general. It felt really intense, out of nowhere. It was a rare thing."

The point of chasing down phenomenology and gaining the equipment necessary to bracket and perceive that which gives itself precisely in its givenness is not to be able to play circular language games, or befuddle readers with turgid, difficult prose, but because in such philosophical practices, the experience of intensity and goodness, out of nowhere, precisely in the regular and every day, is more likely to take place. Such "saturated phenomenon" and our experience of them opens doors to theological reflection we have mostly only dreamt about.


Husserl and the phenomenologists are not the first thinkers to call for a return to the "thing itself." Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Old Testament theologian Martin Luther wrote a justly famous work, the Heidelberg Disputations[1], at the center of which sits three theses that have sparked the imagination of theologians ever since. Luther wrote:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly »perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
20. that person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

Any Christian reader who has read this set of theses is forced to re-consider in their religious life how often they or others have constructed a theology of glory; more importantly, they are challenged to ponder what it really means to call a thing what it actually is. They are invited to see things in themselves through suffering and the cross.

The classic Latin phrase to label this kind of thinking is theologia crucis, a theology of the cross. It's more than a doctrinal system or set of theories. The theologia crucis  is a whole way of being in the world. Thus Luther's insistence that this is about whether or not someone even deserves to be called a theologian. Theologians of glory miss the boat, calling good evil and evil good, and just so divest themselves of the proper status of theologian altogether.

Luther also insists that "the things themselves" are focused in suffering and the cross. This is a solid and classic Christian commitment, more often articulated in piety than actually developed into a theological worldview or way of seeing the world. Yes, Jesus dying on the cross for us saves. Clearly the cross is central to our theology. But many if not most Christians most of the time wear this cross as an accoutrement rather than allowing it to transform their whole being in the world. Taken seriously, however, this way of thinking about the cross considers the cross not as an object of veneration, but as a lens, a bracketing tool. The cross is, as it were, a philosophy, a philosophy of life informed by who God is and has been in the world.

So return to Marion. Marion writes, "From now on, it is necessary that we learn to see what shows itself simply and strictly inasmuch as it shows itself, in the absolute freedom of its apparition. There is nothing easy about this apprenticeship, for what shows itself first gives itself and to see what gives itself, we must first renounce constituting and 'grasping' it (in the Cartesian sense), in favor of simply receiving it. But to receive, in philosophy as elsewhere--what could be more arduous?" (Marion, Being Given, 321) Anything start to click when you read this? Getting down to the givenness itself, seeing what shows itself without "grasping" it means to be subject to, to "suffer" that which gives itself. To be truly receptive to what first gives itself is a hallmark of Christian faith--it also happens to be a hallmark of Christ's own faithfulness. Christ's ultimate prayer, the one that gives the deepest indication of who he is, and who he is in God, is the one prayed last in the garden, "Not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

Then Marion again, "The saturated phenomenon therefore culminates in the type of paradox I call revelation, one that concentrates in itself--as the figure of Christ establishes its possibility--an event, an idol, a flesh, and an icon, all at the same time. Saturation passes beyond itself, exceeds the very concept of maximum, and finally gives its phenomenon without remainder or reserve." (Marion,  Being Given 241) Marion sees Christ as, in a certain sense, the phenomenon sine qua non.

However, to get clear on who precisely Christ is and what the gift of Christ means is going to take just a bit more phenomenological work, and one more round on the topic of the thing itself, this time by way of Augustine. Put your gloves on. There's some thorny terminology to work with here, but it is well worth your time, if you are willing to slow down and sit with it for a while.

Although Augustine never picks up a theology of the "Name of God" in one specific work, it is a discussion that wends its way through many of his books. The "Name of God" has long been discussed in Christian theology, and Augustine does not shy from it. It's a discussion that goes much deeper than what kind of gendered or non-gendered language to use for God (which seems to dominate our contemporary discussion of the issue), and instead goes after whether or not God can be named, and if God is named, how many names or which names can suffice to name God. In the Church Fathers, this has in many instances resulted in (and here I am dramatically over-simplifying the "Name of God" discussion) recognizing that the proliferation of names for God is one way to with integrity and dignity give indication of the ultimate un-nameability of God.

So, when Augustine gets busy naming God (as Marion points out in a late chapter in his 2012 book, In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine (Cultural Memory in the Present), he offers all kinds of names, but his preferred name for God (or "denominating" God) is a little quirky Latin word: idipsum.  Bear with me. So, one way that Augustine denominates God repeatedly in his classic work on the Trinity, is this way, "idipsum quod Deus est, quidquid illud est" (that itself which is God, whatever that might be). The idipsum in Augustine is "the thing itself." Augustine goes to great lengths to avoid defining God with any more detail than this. It is a denominator without any determination. God is who God is, but this particular title does not in any positive or negative sense offer any specific attributes of God.

Augustine will even, in his Confessions, use this denomination as a name of God in praise of God.  "Itaque, tu Domine, qui non es alias aliud et alias alier, sed idipsum et idipsum et idipsum, 'sanctu, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus omnipotens" (And therefore, you, O Lord, who are not here another and there otherwise, but the same thing itself and the same thing itself and the same thing itself [in other words,] holy, holy, holy")[2].  In other words, Augustine understands his preferred denominator for God--the thing itself--as roughly equivalent to the classic trifold name of God sung and spoken in the liturgy--holy holy holy.

Returning to Jean-luc Marion, Marion argues that this way of naming God in Augustine "shows" God without "signifying" anything. It is exactly like the way God names Godself in Exodus in the burning bush. Moses asks, "What is [God's] name?" and God replies, "I AM WHO I AM" (3:13, 14). The reply from the burning bush could just as easily have been the simple word, "HOLY," and a comparable sense of what or who God is would have been signified.

So, Marion, in his own words and in his translation of Augustine, decides to burrow down into Augustine's use of this tight little word. "What is idipsum [the thing itself]? How will I say this, if not by saying idipsum? My brothers [and sisters], if you can, understand idipsum. For, whatever else I say, I do not say [the signification of] idipsum. Idipsum therefore remains radically and definitively apophatic, says no essence, and reaches no definition. If it indicates God, it does so only by its own powerlessness to say him. All its privilege as most appropriate name comes, for idipsum, paradoxically from its patent void of signification, which frees for it the possibility of denominating without pretending to define" (Marion, In the Self's Place 300).

Here we are getting close to the thing itself as well as calling a thing what it is rather than calling the good bad or the bad good. By naming God with a name void of specific signification, it paradoxically names God as God is rather than subjecting God to our projections of how we might wish to define God.

This same re-naming takes place in the naming of Jesus Christ, where the angel gives direction, "You are to name him Jesus" (Matthew 1:21), with direct reference to the Old Testament text, "They shall name him Emmanuel, which means God with us" (1:23). In other words, Jesus Christ is to receive the name that adds nothing more than what is already apparent in the name of God itself, I AM WHO I AM, for this is the God that goes with the people in Godself and as Godself.

So we return to one last big block quote from Marion: "What must you hold [as true]? That he became Christ for you, because he is himself Christ; and Christ himself is understood correctly [as] I am who I am, in the mode in which he is 'in the form of God' [Philippians 2:6]. There where 'he did not consider it his property to be equal to God is precisely where he is idipsum. Thus, in order that you might partake of idipsum, he himself first partook of you, 'and the Word became flesh' [John 1:14] so that the flesh might partake of the Word)... Idipsum  can be incarnate by paying the price of kenosis and can give itself in partaking of [humanity], then it becomes clear that, for Saint Augustine, the function and characteristic of idipsum are not governed by Being, at least in the sense that metaphysics will understand Being in its ontology, but by the charity of God. It is because he first reestablished the "I AM WHO I AM" in its originally soteriological signification that Saint Augustine can deploy it in its most extreme reaches in the figure of the humble servant. There is idipsum for us, there where the 'form of God' takes on the 'condition of a slave,' in Christ the Savior" (Marion, In the Self's Place 302).

What is going on here is a careful theology of the cross interpretation of God's name in Exodus. There is some danger, when interpreting God's name spoken from the burning bush, in reading it as an assertion of power, glory, control. You get this kind of interpretation in, for example, the Harry Potter novels, where "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" arises out of fear of the one being named, because of their transcendent power. But God's denominating Godself as "I AM WHO I AM" is not of this order. God is not Lord Voldemort. God is God. And God is never more God than when God is giving Godself away in Christ, completely and utterly. The power of God rests securely in the powerlessness of God in the cross and in Christ. Returning to the Marion phenomenological language one last time, God is God in God's givenness. The intensity of the given, saturated phenomenon is, in Christian theology, most visible, most shown, in suffering and the cross. All phenomenology does is help explicate this line of thought, already available in Scripture in such passages as Exodus 3 or the Christ hymn of Phillipians 2.

So what does such a return to the thing itself, what does a theology of the cross, look like in run of the mill daily Christian life? I'll take two recent status updates I read recently as case studies. First, from a parishioner:

"There are angels on earth, covered in grime and smelling like stale cigarettes."

It is the expectation of a theologian of glory (and all of us are in various ways theologians of glory) to expect to see God in the beautiful, the wonderful, the, well, glorious. This is the kind of theology behind much popular contemporary theology, where, for example, giving to God is supposed to return blessings from God--or where proper faith will result, supposedly, in your best life now. Even simply in regular old daily life, we tend to look for God in beautiful things, like sunsets, happy events, and the births of babies.

So for my parishioner to identify the presence of the angelic in the grimy, stale smoky self is to see the glorious under the form of its opposite--to experience the messenger of God under the form of the opposite of glory, under suffering and the cross. Many of us also intuit this, discovering God precisely in our suffering, in the poor, in our cranky neighbor. Or even in our own suffering and cross-bearing.

Which brings me to the second Facebook status update, from a colleague:

"Sometimes being in ministry feels like having so little to offer - like i dig deep and yet all i have to put on the table is some dryer lint and a couple broken Happy Meal toys and i'm sure the deal is off and yet God seems to look at that and go 'perfect! THIS i can work with. let's get to it!' and again i am having to question God's judgement."

This is self-emptying on the human level comparable to the self-emptying of Christ, or the self-emptying of God, each one echoing down to the next and "partaking" in each other's life. From a phenomenological perspective, and with the insights gained here, we can see that the reason God can work with this weak and pathetic offering is that God in God's very name is also self-emptying. The thing itself (God) can glorify the thing itself (dryer lint) in the thing itself (Christ).

Returning to Huizenga's "The Moon Rose," all that explanation of the apparent size and color of the moon as it rose in the sky, as glorious as it is, as much as it partakes in divine holiness, is explained awkwardly and nervously by a math and science geek who does not quite know how to talk to his neighbors. The neighbors, equally, under the sway as they are of odd apocalyptic narratives that have convinced them a certain kind of red moon is an indicator of the end of the world, receive his scientific explanation with something less than grace, more like fear, certainly awkwardness.

Yet that very awkward moment is, on another level, glorious. Beautiful people talking beautiful things in beautiful prose are distant from the thing itself. Frequently such supposed beauty calls the good bad and the bad good.

A theologian of the cross, a community informed by the spirit that guides the phenomenological enterprise, angels smoking cigarettes or Christians who only have pocket lint to offer--these have a fighting chance of calling a thing what it is and getting to the things themselves--infused as they are by idipsum, the thing itself. Idipsum idipsum idipsum--sanctus sanctus sanctus.

[1] The full text of the disputation is available at For a seminal commentary on it from a theologian known for "calling a thing what it is," see Gerhard Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation (1518) (Eerdmans, 1997).
[2] Here I am making use of the fantastic commentary and translation of this work by Jean-Luc Marion in his In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine (Stanford University Press, 2012, 296ff.)

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Professors Gregory Walter and David Hahn of St. Olaf College for many edifying conversations that provided much of the fodder for this essay.

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