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Ateneo de Manila, Quezon City



A Paper presented to Fr. Antonio F. B. de Castro, S.J., S.T.L., E.H.D.

in Fulfillment of the Requirements for the course

THEO 333.1:



Michael Jason Liberatore

September 2014

Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida met and debated their varied interpretations of
God, the Gift, and Mystical Theology as part of a conference on “Religion and
Postmodernism” at Villanova University in September 1997. The papers presented and
ensuing discussions were subsequently published in God, the Gift and Postmodernism, which
was edited by John Caputo and Michael Scanlon.1 This debate revealed the divergence in
thought between the teacher (Derrida) and his former student (Marion), but also some
interesting areas of convergence which the editors admit to not having understood previously.
The collection begins with Marion's essay on the “In the Name.”2 He first explores the
the interaction between these two terms, which “have a paradoxical characteristic in common
– that of having either precise definition nor clear-cut historical legitimacy.”3 Marion argues
that the indeterminacy of the metaphysics of presence is “inevitably harmful to its
hermeneutic efficacy.”4 He argues the same indeterminacy affects the term negative theology,
and, “as a result, it can reasonably by supposed that this formula is nothing but modern.”5 The
indeterminacy of these two terms leads Marion to conclude, “We will from now on no longer
consider the phrases 'metaphysics of presence' and 'negative theology,' if by chance we have
had to use them, as anything but conceptual imprecisions to be overcome or as questions
awaiting answers – never as secure bases.”6
Marion identifies three moments (“inseparable, but not unhierarchical”) of

(i) first, an explicit denegation – that by which, according to Derrida, “negative

theology” says it is saying nothing positive about God; (ii) next, an implicit
denegation – by which, according to Derrida, “negative theology” claims not to do
what it nevertheless does all the time: namely, again say something, predicate τὶ κατὰ
τὶνος of God, and thereby re-inscribe him in the “metaphysics of presence,” (iii)
finally and most important, an explicit denegation made by Derrida – in which he
denies that he himself repeats, with différance, the project and the failures of
“negative theology.”7

1. God, the Gift and Postmodernism, ed.John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon (Bloomington: Indiana
University, 1999).

2. Jean-Luc Marion. “In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of 'Negative Theology,'” in God, the Gift
and Postmodernism, ed. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1999), 20-

3. Ibid., 20.

4. Ibid., 21.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

The third moment occupies Marion's attention because “it is a matter of

deconstructing a project which is already an explicit denegation of presence, thus of
deconstructing a quasi-deconstruction. . . . It claims to put us in the presence of God in the
very degree to which it denies all presence. . . . In short, for deconstruction, what is at issue in
'negative theology' is not first of all 'negative theology,' but deconstruction itself, its
originality and its final pre-eminence.”8
Marion finds deconstruction defending itself in its deconstruction of negative
theology's two-fold claim: “its claim to deconstruct God and nevertheless to reach him.”9
Derrida, therefore, has a unique critique of negative theology, because he does not simply
assume that negative theology leads to atheism. Rather, “for Derrida, quite to the contrary, the
task is to stigmatize 'negative theology's' persistence in making affirmation about God – while
denying that it does so – in particular the affirmation of existence – and thereby to point out
its failure to think God outside of presence and to free itself from the 'metaphysics of
Marion identifies four objections within this argument. First, that “'negative theology'
could be assimilated to a Christian philosophy indeed to what is most 'Greek' about onto-
theo-logy.” Second, “it could even be inscribed within the horizon of Being.” The effect is
that 'negative theology' essentially becomes a quasi-affirmation, which leads to the third
objection: “In short, 'negative theology' does not annul [ne nie pas] the essence, Being, or
truth of God but denies [les dénier] them so as to better re-establish them, in something like a
hyperbole.” The final objection responds to “negative theology's” argument that it does not
predicate but praises in prayer through non-predicative speech. Derrida, thus, identifies the
last task to “disqualify he latter [the prayer which praises – ὑμνείν] as a disguised form of
predication. This is done by opposing the prayer which praises to prayer pure and simple
Marion proposes to take these questions seriously (especially objection 3) because
they pose two fundamental lines of questioning to Christian theology: “To what extent does
its negation not just re-establish in the via eminentiae what the apophasis deemed to have

7. Ibid., 22.

8. Ibid., 22.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 23.

11. Ibid.

disqualified? . . . Can Christian theology as a theology evoked by a Revelation remove itself

in principle, if not in actual accomplishment, from the 'metaphysics of presence' – or is it, in
the final analysis, reducible to this metaphysics?”12
Marion proposes that responding to these questions necessitates recognizing a third
way beyond affirmation and negation which Dionysius the Areopagite identifies, to which
both affirmation and negation must yield: “'By the arrangement of beings insofar as they
come from Him and contain certain icons and semblances of the divine paradigms
[affirmative way] that we approach, as far as our capacities allow, the beyond of all [beings]
through its way and its position and in the negation and overcoming of all [negative way],
and in the cause of all [third way].”13
Marion cautions against the assumption of a duality between the affirmative and
negative because “the hermeneutics of suspicion always runs the risk of arbitrariness and
therefore should intervene only in the last instance, when no other interpretation appears
possible any longer. . . . Dionysius (and the theologians who followed or preceded him on this
path) has no need to overdetermine or falsify the negative moment because he opened (or at
least claimed to be open to) a final, more radical, and also more direct way, which alone leads
to the end.”14 The conclusion Marion draws is that the hermeneutics of suspicion does not
apply in this instance precisely because Dionysius is not simply engaged in negation and
affirmation, but moving beyond them to “transcend the true and the false.”15
As he goes on to discuss, “If the third way is no longer about saying the true or the
false, if it is precisely a matter of its not saying them, one can no longer claim that I means to
affirm a predicate of a subject not even beneath the absurd dissimulation of a negation, not
that it has the least bit of interest in doing so. The third way does not hide an affirmation
beneath a negation, because it means to overcome their duel, just as it means to overcome
that between the two truth values wherein metaphysics plays itself out.”16 Underneath this
claim is an understanding that ultimately, for Dionysius, one can neither truly say something

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 24.

14. Ibid., 25.

15. Ibid., 26.

16. Ibid.

about God, since “a negation by itself is never enough to make a theology, no more than an
affirmation is. There is never a proper or appropriate name to speak of God.”17
Dionysius gives God the title αἰτία which “goes beyond every affirmation and
negation. . . . it breaks with every predicative or designative function and is limited to what
each creature, as it is what it is, aims at . . . it denominates him by suggesting the strictly
pragmatic function of language – namely, to refer names and their speaker to the unattainable
yet inescapable interlocutor beyond every name and every denegation of names. With αἰτία,
speech does not say any more than it denies – it acts by transporting itself in the direction of
Him whom it denominates.”18 Marion indicates that Dionysius is not simply identifying God
with negation, but rather using speech to draw the person towards God who is beyond all
God being beyond all language leads Marion to discuss ὑπέρ. He finds the equating of
ὑπέρ with “without” problematic since, “to say that God is ὑπερούσιος is to deny that God is
a being of any kind, even the highest or original being.”19 The conclusion Marion draws is
that “ὑπέρ re-establishes neither essence not knowledge, but transgresses them both in view
of praising what precedes and makes possible all essence.”20 He finds that the theologian of
the divine names John Scotus Eriugena communicated the belief that God is more than
essence which is both an affirmation (he is essence) and a negation (he is not essence)
because he is superessential21 The conclusion one should draw from Dionysisu therefore is
articulated as follows:

Dionysius (followed by the best of his interpreters) denies first that negation by itself
suffices to define a theology, next that negation opposes affirmation in a simple duel,
and finally that negation re-establishes affirmation while pretending to invert it. . . .
With the third way, not only is it no longer a matter of saying (or denying) something
about something, it is also no longer a matter of saying or unsaying, but of referring to
Him who is no longer touched by nomination. It is solely a matter of de-nominating.22

He then proceeds to discuss objection 4 that prayer which praises (ὑμνείν) is disguised
predication. Marion argues there are two problematic presuppositions with this critique:

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 27.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 28.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

“First, it presupposes that it is unquestionable that praising, that is attributing a name to an

interlocutor, indeed dedicating to him one name in particular, necessarily implies identifying
him in and with his essence and thereby submits him to the 'metaphysics of presence.'”23
Second, “the objection presupposes that praise, since it names, cannot be suitable to prayer
which is supposed to not to name.”24
The first presupposition is problematic because “never is the proper name a name for
essence. . . . Therefore, the experience of the proper name – received or given – never ends up
fixing the essence f the individual in presence, but always marks that, as a principle, the
individual does not coincide with its essence or its presence exceeds it essence. . . . Thus,
supposing that praise attributes a name to a possible God, one should conclude that it does
not name him properly o essentially, not that it names him in presence, but that it makes his
absence, anonymity, and withdrawal – exactly as every name dissimulates every individual,
whom it merely indicated without ever manifesting.”25
The second presupposition misses out on the pragmatic function of the third way and
fails to recognize what is really happening in prayer - “prayer does not consist in causing the
invoked to descend into the realm of our language (he exceeds it, but also he is found always
already among us), but elevating ourselves toward him by sustained attention. . . . Thus,
prayer and praise are carried out in the very same operation of an indirect aim for the αἰτία,
which they never claim to name properly, but always to de-nominate as . . . and inasmuch as .
. . what this intention can glimpse and interpret of it.”26
Marion proceeds to discuss objection 2 and whether "mystical theology is really
inscribed within the horizon of Being, and as a result s inscribed in the onto-theo-logical
figure that metaphysics imposed on it."27 He recognizes some prudence is necessary when
discussing Thomas Aquinas' use of Being as an “inconceivable esse, without analogy, indeed
penitus incognitum,” because “then the mere fact that Being comes up is not enough to
establish an onto-theo-logy.”28

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 29.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., 30.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., 30-31.


In spite of this word of caution with Thomas, Marion says no such prudence is
necessary with Dionysius, because he rejects the possibility of de-nominating God with
Being. Tracing Dionysius' discussion, Marion derives three theses:

(i) The horizon of being remains regional, because by definition it leaves out all non-
beings. (ii) It always remains possible to take them into consideration, because they
refer to the good, even when not being, in the mode of 'desire.' (iii) Therefore the first
(or last) of the de-nominations of God will have to be drawn from the horizon of the
good, rater than that of Being – it being understood that even this de-nomination
attains neither what is proper to God nor God properly.29

Marion works through a number of questions which lead ultimately to whether one
can say something without predicating (or implicitly predicating) to that something.

For as soon as it is a question of the 'otherwise than Being' it is no longer a matter of

saying something about something but of a pragmatics of speech, more subtle, risky,
and complex. It's a matter of being exposed in ones intending a non-object, exposed to
the point of receiving from the non-object determinations that are so radical and new
that they speak to me and shape me far more than they teach and inform me.
Henceforth, the words spoken no longer say or explain anything about some thing
kept for and by my gaze. They expose me to what lets itself be said only for the sake
of no longer permitting me to say it but to acknowledge it as goodness, thus to love it.
About this inversion in the gravity and orientation of speech—which we have been
thematizing as de-nomination, just as Dionysius fixed it beneath the titles ὑμνείν and
εὐχή--, it is therefore fitting that one no longer be capable of saying or denying
anything whatsoever.30

He thus shifts the focus from what one says about something to being drawn into that
something, which is named but not really named. We must say something, give a name to that
to which we are drawn but the name is unimportant and opens one up to hearing.
The identification of something which we hear and which speaks to us and shapes us
leads Marion to assert that Derrida's objections are not to be refuted, but rather “taken as the
bases from we can construct, or at least outline, the scope of the question.”31 Marion outlines
Derrida's argument as follows:

(i) theology knows, according to an undiscussed hypothesis, only the two figures of
metaphysical predication (affirmation and negation) and does not broach any third
way; (ii) so as not to drift into atheism, the negative way inevitably compels the
theologian to fall back into positivity, more or less scandalously, more or less
honestly; (iii) the simply rhetorical recourse to "super-essential" eminence re-

29. Ibid., 31.

30. Ibid., 32.

31. Ibid., 33.


enforces, far from weakening, the claim that the question of God is inscribed within
the horizon of essence, thus of Being; (iv) and therefore, the so-called negative
theology falls beneath the sword of deconstruction just like any obviously
metaphysical discourse and perhaps more so since its claim to be removed from it
must also be unmasked.32

Marion's primary concern with Derrida is the significance of presence, and whether it is valid
to presuppose that “theology succumbs in full to the obsession with presence.”33
For Dionysius, this is not a question because he “insists that de-nomination maintain
God outside of all proper names, without sinking into presence.”34 And this is not simply a
restriction, but is essential for God to be God: “God cannot be seen, not only because nothing
finite can bear his glory without perishing, but above all because a God that could be
conceptually comprehended would no longer bear the title "God.'' It is not much to say that
God remains God even if one is ignorant of his essence, his concept, and his presence – he
remains God only on condition that this ignorance be established and admitted definitively.”35
Marion traces this through several of the Church Fathers, concluding, “it seems legitimate to
admit as a fact still to be explained that at least for the Church Fathers theology does not
consist in naming God properly, but in knowing him precisely as what cannot be known
properly – what must not be known, if one wants to know it as such.”36
Marion contends the Church Fathers identify theology not with naming God, but in
recognizing that God cannot be known in any sort of definitive way, and therefore one must
admit a certain ignorance and continuing search for God. It is in fact the heretics, according
to Marion, who make the mistake of inscribing God within Being and presume to know God
as an essence: “For the demand (and still more the pretension) to know God in an essence
must be stigmatized not only as impossible but above all as indecent – it is simply not
appropriate to what is at issue because it relates to mere curiosity.37
Marion concludes that God is not simply denied but is beyond both being known and
not being known:

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., 33-34.

35. Ibid., 34.

36. Ibid., 35.

37. Ibid., 36.


God therefore can be known only as not being known. . . . It is not a matter of a
kataphasis ill-disguised in an apophasis, but of a radical apophasis which, precisely as
radical, opens – by means of a paradox that is to be taken into consideration – onto
knowledge of another type. To know in and through ignorance itself, to know that one
does not know, to know incomprehensibility as such – the third way would consist, at
least at first glance, in nothing else.38

God must be formally unknown and defined as incomprehensible to the finite human mind
(and therefore beyond the human person). God must draw us beyond ourselves, and beyond
any knowing:

In the case of God, knowledge cannot rise up to itself except by transgressing itself
until it becomes an unknowing, or rather until it becomes a knowledge that is capable
of acknowledging the incomprehensible, and thereby respects the operative,
pragmatic, and endlessly repeatable de-nomination of God as that than which nothing
greater [better] can be thought [id quo majus (sire melius) cogitari nequit]. De-
nomination therefore does not end up in a "metaphysics of presence" that does not call
itself as such. Rather, it ends up as a theology of absence – where the name is given as
having no name, as not giving the essence, and having nothing but this absence to
make manifest.39

Counter, therefore, to the claims that de-nomination leads to a “metaphysics of

presence” is Marion's argument that this be best understood as a theology of absence: “By
theology of absence, therefore, we mean not the non-presence of God, but the fact that the
name that God is given, the name which gives God, which is given as God (each of these
going hand in hand, without being confused) serves to shield God from presence – weakness
designating God at least as well as strength – and offers him precisely as an exception to
presence.”40 Underneath this claim is Marion's emphasis on a pragmatic discourse which has
“no ground, no essence, no presence” and therefore overcomes Objection 2.
Marion has the goal of re-ordering human focus and reminding us that we do not
create and name God, but rather it is God who creates and names us: “For the Name no
longer functions by inscribing God within the theoretical horizon of our predication, but by
inscribing us, according to a radically new praxis, in the very horizon of God. . . . Thus
mystical theology no longer has as its goal to find a name for God, but to make us receive our
own from the unsayable Name.”41

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., 37.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., 38.


The theology of absence is thus an ally of deconstruction in resisting and opposing the
“metaphysics of presence.” This is a reminder to theologians that,“The theologian's job is to
silence the Name and in this way let it give us one – while the metaphysician is obsessed with
reducing the Name to presence, and so defeating the Name.”42 This is also a critique of a way
of doing theology which restricts God to human conception and thus creates a conception of
God which is not God (and therefore an idol).
The next step for Marion is to show the relationship between the third way and
saturated phenomenon. Since the initial problematic has been reversed, a new question in
relationship to phenomenology arises: “If that with which the third way of mystical theology
deals in fact is revealed, how should the phenomenon be described, such that we do justice to
its possibility?”43 Marion proposes three possible responses: First, kataphasis, by which “The
intention finds itself confirmed, at least partially, by the intuition, and this tangential equality
defines adequation, therefore the evidence of truth.”44 Second, apophasis, by which, “the
intention can exceed all intuitive fulfillment, and in this case the phenomenon does not
deliver objective knowledge on account of a lack.”45 Third, the saturated phenomenon, by
which “The intention (the concept or the signification) can never reach adequation with the
intuition (fulfillment), not because the latter is lacking but because it exceeds what the
concept can receive, expose, and comprehend.”46
Marion finds value in the third way but is conscious that it is easily misinterpreted as
the second, because it shares with the second way that “no predication or naming any longer
appears possible.”47 However, the reason for this impossibility of predication is different:
“Because the excess of intuition overcomes, submerges, exceeds, in short saturates, the
measure of each ad every concept.”48 But the impossibility of predication does not mean God
cannot be experienced or intuited: “God remains incomprehensible, not imperceptible –
without adequate concept, not without giving intuition.”49

42. Ibid., 39.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., 40.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

Consequently, the third way cannot be confused with the sufficiency of the concept in
the first way nor with the insufficiency of intuition in the second; rather, it registers the
ineradicable insufficiency of the concept in general. The de-nomination which puts us in the
Name has nothing in common with one or the other possibility opened by predication and
nomination: “First, the excess of intuition is accomplished in the form of stupor, indeed of the
terror which the incomprehensibility resulting from excess imposes on us. . . . Next, it could
also be that the excess of intuition is marked – strangely enough – by our obsession with
evoking, discussing, and even denying that of which we all admit that we have no concept.”50
Marion wraps-up his lecture by discussing the name. “The Name must not be said not
because it is not given for the sake of our saying it, even negatively, but so that we might de-
nominate all names of it and dwell in it. The Name – it has to be dwelt in without saying it,
but by letting it say, name, and call us. The Name is not said, it calls.”51

Derrida's Response and Discussion

Derrida argues that many of the areas of alleged disagreement between Marion and
himself may not be as significant as Marion argues: “the discussion will be all the more
difficult and even paradoxical insofar as I very often agree with Marion and share some of his
views, and insofar as the arguments that he opposed to me, notably around what he calls the
third way and denomination, can be found in my own texts, in the ones he quotes and in some
others that he did not quote. They even play a decisive role in these texts.”52
However, Derrida disagrees with Marion's implication that he has a thesis on the
theme of negative theology, because his comments, “have a pragmatic aspect, a performative
aspect that would require another kind of analysis.”53 In particular, the use of negative
theology in the singular is especially disconcerting because Derrida argues he “very
cautiously put[s] these words in quotation marks, in the plural. . . .I transform the expression
'what one calls negative theology' or 'negative theologies' into a problematic entity. It is this
expression that is for me a problem and not simply a reference.”54

50. Ibid., 41.

51. Ibid., 42.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid., 43.


Derrida also identifies an area of disagreement which concerns Marion's account of

the “logic of denegation as negation and the negation of a negation, but also that it is more
complex than in a psyschoanalytic sense.”55 He accuses Marion of oversimplifying his logic
of denegation, which leads to greater agreement than Marion allows. This agreement further
extends into their emphasis on pragmatics and they should have a discussion about praise and
prayer, which would be difficult, as well as with denomination, which inscribes these
questions “within the proper name which is never proper.”56
The wide agreement Derrida identifies comes with the caveat that there are specific
areas where he and Marion may not so easily agree. The first is the need for a difficult
conversation about prayer and praise, while the other concerns Christian baptism: “Because if
I agree with about the formal structure of what he said about the name, about non-propriety,
the inappropriateness, of the proper name of God or of anyone, if I agree in principle on a
very general and structural level with him, I would not so easily take Christian baptism as the
paradigm for this structure.”57
Marion replies by emphasizing a few areas where he might be adding something new,
since they have broader areas of agreement than he realized. In particular, “we agree that
there are three ways of speaking about God but the difficulty is to understand how it is
possible to say that there is a third way. . . The point is not whether there is a third one, but
how to understand that the third one remains rational, although it does not remain confined
within the possibilities opened by metaphysics.”58
Marion suggests that they need to take seriously the pragmatic use of language, which
has to do with prayer and praise and could be explored further, as a possible way of
remaining rational but also going beyond metaphysics. He finds in the Capodocian fathers an
interesting situation, in which he says, “I think orthodox theology was in face a powerful
endeavor to deconstruct the naïve metaphysics of presence used by Arianism. In that
situation, I would say, the part of deconstruction was played by the orthodox theologians.”59

55. Ibid., 45.

56. Ibid., 45.

57. Ibid., 46.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid., 47.


Derrida and Marion consider their dialogue shifting to a discussion of “the Gift.”60
They begin this discussion with the question of the gift, in particular its religious meaning.
However, Marion points out that his own thinking has shifted from the gift to givenness: But,
with Reduction and Givenness, the question of the gift turned out to be profoundly modified
for me by the discovery of the issue of givenness, Gegebenheit, in phenomenology, and by
phenomenology I mean Husserl, and by Husserl I mean the early Husserl, the Husserl of the
Logical Investigations.”61 Marion considers this significant because Husserl goes beyond
Kant and asserts that more than simply intuition is given, “even the signification has to be
given, too, as such, and more: that the essences, the logical essences, truth and so forth had to
be given, too. Everything, not only the intuition, is gegeben, or can be gegeben, or at least
you can ask about every signification whether it is gegeben or not.”62
As a result of this shift, Marion himself shifted from phenomenology as a study of the
gift to re-reading phenomenology as the science of the given. This would account for “some
very strange phenomena, insofar as you cannot say that they 'are.'”63 Marion's response to
these phenomena is to describe them not with being but as given, which “achieves, first of all,
a phenomenological determination,” from which it is possible to go back to specific
experiences which are known as religious experiences, and “these phenomena seem given par
Derrida expresses uncertainty about Marion's reading of phenomenology. In particular
he is unconvinced that Marion's reading of Husserl and phenomenology is consistent.

I am not convinced that between the use of Gegebenheit in phenomenology and the
problem we're about to discuss, that is, the gift, there is a semantic continuity. I am not
sure that when, of course, Husserl refers, extensively and constantly, to what is given
to intuition, this given-ness, this Gegebenheit has an obvious and intelligible
relationship to the gift, to being given as a gift.” At core is the question of whether
Marion has made a jump from given-ness to the gift that goes beyond what the
concept of Gegebenheit would allow: “Are we authorized to go directly from the
phenomenological concept of Gegebenheit, given-ness, to the problem of the gift that
we are about to discuss?65

60. “On the Gift: A Discussion Between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion,” moderated by Richard
Kearney, in God, the Gift and Postmodernism, ed.John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon (Bloomington:
Indiana University, 1999): 54-78.

61. Ibid., 56.

62. Ibid.

63. Ibid., 57.

64. Ibid.

Derrida says that Marion has fairly summarized his thought on the gift from Given
Time, which “reconstitute[s] here and insist[s] on what looks like an impossibility: for the gift
to appear as such while remaining a gift, to appear as such on the side of the donator and on
the side of the donee, the receiver, and the impossibility for a gift to be present, to be a being
as being present. So I dissociate the gift from the present.”66 Derrida also states he and
Marion agree up this point. However, their disagreement begins subsequent to this point
because Marion asserts that Derrida's argument has “problematized the gift in the horizon of
economy, of ontology and economy, in the circle of exchange . . . and we have to free the gift
from this horizon of exchange and economy.”67 But Derrida disagrees this is what he has
attempted to do. He has both maintained that the gift is outside the economy of exchange and
it exists:

I have tried to precisely displace the problematic of the gift, to take it out of the circle
of economy, of exchange, but not to conclude, from the impossibility for the gift to
appear as such and to be determined as such, to its absolute impossibility. . . . But I
never concluded that there is no gift. I went on to say that if there is a gift, through
this impossibility, it must be the experience of this impossibility, and it should appear
as impossible.68

Derrida makes two crucial distinctions that he believes may help to open a new way
to discuss these issues. The first is Kant's distinction between knowing and thinking, the
effect of which is to recognize that the gift cannot be known, but can be thought of, by which
he means it is “something in excess of knowledge.”69 This means that “we have a relation to
the gift beyond the circle, the economic circle, and beyond the theoretical and
phenomenological determination.”70 The second is the distinction between knowing and
doing, or knowing and an event, which intersects with the first, since “A gift is something
you do without knowing what you do, without knowing who gives the gift, who receives the
gift, and so on.”71

65. Ibid., 58.

66. Ibid., 59.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid., 60.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

Derrida finds agreement between them in the idea that the gift must be outside the
economy of exchange. The problem from Derrida's perspective is that Marion wants to
address the question of the gift from within phenomenology whereas Derrida “doubts there is
a possibility of the phenomenology of the gift.”72 For Derrida, this must be about considering
possibility “from a place which is not inside what I try to account for.”73
Marion responds first with a technical clarification on Husserl and Gegebenheit is not
restricted to intuition, “For him, even significations are given, without intuition. He assumes
openly a 'logical givenness.'"74 Derrida agrees with him on this but re-raises his concern from
earlier because it is not clear what is the gift?
Marion moves to clarify this issue. The objection concerns the relationship between
the meaning of givenness and the gift, which are equivocal phenomenologically. Marion
argues against this because “this so-called equivocity as a starting point proves to impoverish
both the question of the gift and that of givenness.” But the gift is not something to be
understood or grasped, but “simply thought – in a very radical way.”75 Marion's push is
towards a wider or greater horizon, the horizon of givenness, which may open up more
phenomena which can be explained using the pattern of the gift, and “givenness perhaps
opens the secret, the final result and potentially lost analysis of the gift.”76
There is common agreement among them on a fundamental conviction: “We cannot
explain, and we have no access to the gift, so long as we keep it within the horizon of
economy.”77 The key question is whether the gift can be described: “Is it possible to describe
the gift, taking seriously the aporias on which we agree? If it proves to be possible, this is
simply phenomenology, because phenomenology first of all means to see and to describe the
phenomena. So, as long as such a description is possible, I think that we have to say that we
remain in the field of phenomenology.”78 This assertion parallels the distinctions made
previously by Derrida that the gift is in excess of knowledge. What becomes difficult here

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid., 61.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid., 62.

78. Ibid.

concerns language which seems to indicate something but does not indicate something – the
pragmatic use of language to which both Derrida and Marion agreed previously.
Marion turns to the Christian implications of the gift. The absence of the giver or of
the receiver does not prohibit describing the gift: “A gracious gift appears precisely because
there is no response, no answer, no gratitude back, all of which is obvious because we can
give without any receiver. You can imagine also a gift without any giver, which would
nevertheless be absolutely achieved.”79 And, in fact, the absence of a giver when a gift is
received precisely invites one to ask whether there is a giver, “which already opens us into
the horizon of givenness.”80
Richard Kearney, as moderator intervenes to ask Marion to speak about the saturated
phenomenon as the privileged example of the phenomenology of the gift as donation. Marion
replies by first pointing out that “the gift does not always imply that something is given.” And
if this gift is really unique and unable to be transferred to another person, then “We can
describe the gift outside of the horizon of economy in such a way that new phenomenological
rules appear.”81 Because it cannot be repeated and cannot be shared, “we discover with the
gift, and to let it display its visibility according to its own logic, we have an experience of a
kind of phenomenon that cannot be described anymore as an object or as a being.”82
Since the gift can not be described as an object or as being, it must also present its
own way of being understood or described, and here is where he argues he departs from
Derrida: “if I agree with Derrida to go beyond economy, I disagree with him on another point:
This description of the gift can be made, but only in a very particular way. . . . We have to
commit ourselves by achieving the gift by ourselves, in such a way that we become able to
describe it.”83 The person receiving the gift does not simply accept, but achieves the gift and
thereby participates in the description. There is an active engagement with the receiving of
the gift by the person.
Derrida responds with a fundmental question about what counts as phenomenology:
“What would be the theme of such a phenomenology? What would phenomenological
analysis describe if not the experience of the giver, the experience of the receiver, the thing

79. Ibid.

80. Ibid., 63.

81. Ibid.

82. Ibid., 64.

83. Ibid.

which is presently given, or the intention? As you know, phenomenological analysis has as its
main theme intentional experience.”84 Derrida is concerned that with the absence of the
receiver, the giver or the thing given, there is nothing left for the “as such” qualification.
Derrida argues the “as such” is excluded in his discussion: “if the event of the gift, for me,
excludes the presence of the as such of the giver, of the receiver, of the given thing, of the
present thing, and of the intention then what is left for the 'as such?'”85
Marion replies that he has argued a phenomenon can be described as long as two of
the three elements are present; giver, gift, receiver. The problem according to Marion is that
with all three elements present, “nothing remains at all and there is neither an as such nor any
possibility even to question givenness.”86 Derrida responds that when Marion gives up the “as
such,” he also moves outside of phenomenology. Marion responds that he disagrees with this
assertion, just as he disagreed with Levinas' insistence that to give up the horizon is to cease
to do phenomenology.87
John Caputo summarizes the discussion and the issues from the debate. His initial
observation is that Marion and Derrida are grappling with different problems, and thus have
different approaches to responding to questions about the gift:

I think that Marion's problematic of the gift is very Heideggerian and that he wants to
move the question of the gift out of the economy of causality, out of the horizon of
ontotheologic, and to take up the "gifting of gift," the emerging of a gift as what has
been released from onto-theological and causal constraints, so that it becomes excess.
I do not think that this is exactly Derrida's concern. My sense is that the question of
the gift for Derrida has to do primarily with the economy of credit and debt, and that
Derrida wants the recipient not to contract a debt and the giver not to acquire acclaim
for such generosity.88

They thus have different explanations of what is economy: causality for Marion and credit
and debt for Derrida, though Caputo wonders if Marion's discussion will not lead to the issue
of debt and whether he can avoid ultimately ending up with Derrida's claims and argument.
Caputo then ends with a question to consider with Marion's discussion: “how to
distinguish the confusion of bedazzlement or of excess from the confusion of defect. How do

84. Ibid., 65.

85. Ibid.

86. Ibid.

87. Ibid., 66.

88. Ibid., 77.


we know that we have been visited by a supereminent excess and not just simply invaded by
khora? How do we know that the source of the confusion is God, not khora?”89

Comparing and Contrasting Derrida and Marion

The debate between Marion and Derrida reveals several challenges to identifying the
relevance of their discussion of the Name of God and the Gift to theological reflection.
Drawing out their intersections and diversions, Thomas A. Carlson90 begins with the
observation that “recent attempts to interpret giving or givenness as absolute or unconditional
almost invariably end up characterizing 'the gift' in terms of 'the impossible' – but one can
distinguish here at least three figures of 'the impossible.'”91 The first of these is “the absolute
gift is associated in theology with an ineffable and inconceivable Good 'beyond being' – a
love or charity that opens the 'indisputable and definitive impossibility' of thinking God as
such.”92 The second is, “the absolute gift is approached phenomenologically in terms of an
unconditional givenness (Gegebenheit, donation) that appears in a call whose source and
identity remain by necessity indeterminate.”93 Third, “the absolute gift can be associated with
death – understood as the 'possibility of the impossible' – insofar as death marks the limit at
which subjective consciousness cannot return to itself or reapprorpriate itself in its self-
Carlson identifies the first as primarily theological and the second as primarily
phenomenological, while the third, “might offer a terrain where the ambiguity and instability
of borders between the theological and phenomenological thought of givenness might be –
rather than clarified and overcome – drawn out and exploited.”95 This third way will be the
subject of Carlson's argument as he seeks to draw out the analogy between the mystical union
with God and phenomenology of death through the “phenomenological account of givenness
as a 'saturation' or 'revelation' which allows for – or requires – a blinding indeterminacy of the
89. Ibid., 78.

90. Thomas A. Carlson. “Six: The Naming of God and the Possibility of Impossibility: Marion and
Derrida between the Theology and Phenomenology of the Gift,” in Indiscreton: Finitude and the Naming of
God (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 191-236.

91. Ibid., 191.

92. Ibid.

93. Ibid.

94. Ibid., 192.

95. Ibid.

given or revealed, an indeterminacy where, precisely, the negativity of theological and

thanatological excesses might prove indistinguishable but not necessarily identical.”96
He begins then with an account of Marion's theology. He argues that Marion
formulates a twofold critique that targets two distinct 'idolatries': conceptions of God from
metaphysical or onto-theological traditions of Western philosophy and theology, and a
critique of Heidegger through the Good beyond Being that defies historical boundaries –
charity. Marion organizes his thought around the poles of “idol” and “icon:” “idol and icon
signify two distinct modes of visibility for the divine, or two distinct ways of apprehending
the divine: the idol is defined by the primacy of the human subject's intentional
consciousness, while the icon would radically disrupt or reverse that primacy.”97 The idol
merely reflects my own thought, though more clearly than I may have seen it previously,
whereas the icon helps me see that prior to my own thought, I am looked upon by an
irreducible other.
The idol is seen in western metaphysical thought when God is conceived as a supreme
causal being (causa sui), since this envelopes God within a category limited by thoughts own
limitations: “For Marion, this metaphysical conception of God as a supreme, causal being
amounts to a conceptual idol because it is defined according to what the limits of thought can
contain.”98 This limitation of the metaphysical concept is opened by Heidegger but, yet he
replaces one limitation for another – Being in place of supreme cause: “Having freed God
from the idolatrous formulation of onto-theology's causa sui, Marion argues, Heidegger goes
on to submit god to a new set of conditions – those marked by the horizon of Being itself. . . .
In this submission of the human experience of God's appearances to the prior conditions of
Being, Marion discerns a second form of idolatry.”99
Carlson identifies the core of Marion's theological thinking emerging from the
recognition of this second idolatry: “Might not a search for the 'more divine god' (or the most
phenomenal phenomenon) lead one 'to think God [or the phenomenon] without any
conditions, not even that of Being, hence to think God without pretending to inscribe him or
to describe him as a being?”100 This requires a “negative propaedeutic to a properly

96. Ibid., 192-193.

97. Ibid., 194.

98. Ibid.

99. Ibid., 195-196.

100. Ibid., 196.


theological form of thought: 'One therefore must recognize the impossibility, or at least the
extreme difficulty, of thinking outside of ontological difference could, in some way, directly
suit the impossibility – indisputable and definitive – of thinking God as such.”101
If God is impossible to think “as such,” then the question of theological language is
raised. Marion appeals to the biblical and theological language of love which is the means for
“passing beyond all idolatry into the impossible possibility of thinking God 'without idolatry:'
'God can give himself to be thought without idolatry only starting from himself alone: to give
himself to be thought as love, hence as gift.”102 The fundamental question theology thus
becomes the question of the gift in its two modes – as given and as received. Marion's
discussion of the interplay of these two modes of the gift is developed using Dionysius'
insistence “on the coimplication of God's self-revelation and self-concealment.103 Thus,
Marion sees in Dionysius that the “Divine Name comes to us as the unthinkable within the
thinkable, because the unthinkable in person delivers it to us.”104
Marion therefore correlates the Divine Name is given to us “in and through the Christ
with the absolute priority of the Good given in distance.”105 This prioritizes the Good over
Being and, by extension, the language of praise over the language of predication: “Praise
would constitute the primal form of theological language: the anteriority of an unthinkable
distance that peaks before I can hear – a distance with respect to which my thought and
language are always in delay – marks the precedence of the Good over Being and demands
the priority of praise over predication.”106
Praise or prayer is primary for theological language because, “the capacity for prayer
would be the capacity (or incapacity) of the I to receive more than its thought or language
might ever grasp or contain.”107 But while “the language of praise would refer infinitely to the
divine Cause or Requisite (αἰτία) and to that degree fall ever short of it, the Requisite
nevertheless proves to be, as theological referent, required.”108 Marion finds necessary the

101. Ibid., 196-197.

102. Ibid., 197.

103. Ibid.

104. Ibid., 198.

105. Ibid.

106. Ibid.

107. Ibid., 199-200.

108. Ibid., 201.


referent, regardless of how anonymous or Absent the referent may be. This reason, however,
seems to be theological and not pertaining to a theology of language, and draws one to the
difference between Marion and Derrida.
The distinguishing issue here concerns what Carlson identifies as a “significant
ambiguity in Marion between theological and philosophical reflection.”109 Marion argues that
the essence of language comes to us as a given, which then privileges certain forms of
Christian discourse and language. The first form is the “biblical logia which become the
iconic in and through their investment by the Logos, who is taken as the source, norm and
definitive authority of iconic distance,” while the second is, “the words of prayer.”110 While
these two forms of language have a referent, they are never simply signifying their referent
for the referent is always beyond what is signified.
Marion builds the relationship between revelation and phenomenology from this basis
of language, since the “God of phenomenology gives without reserve, in an excess so
extreme that God is present only as absent to the point of remaining unavailable.”111 But this
raises the question of how to understand the relation between a God who appears historically
and is experienced with a God Marion insists does not appear and remains radically
unavailable in his unconditional givenness? And “is the indeterminacy of the call that would
be given in the saturated phenomenon really enough to distinguish the God of Marion's
phenomenology from the God of his theology?”112
Carlson sums up several parallel ambiguities in Marion between his theology and

1) While Marion's theology seeks to think God without conditions (of Being or
thought) in terms of an inconceivable charity given in the call of the Father, his
phenomenology seeks to think the phenomenon without conditions (of Being or
thought) in terms of pure givenness given in the call as such. 2) Just as the
theological thought of charity, the call, and the giving of the Name necessitates a
model of the linguistic dispossession of the Son, so likewise the phenomenological
thought of givenness, the call and the gift of the name requires the model of an
originary dispossession or inauthenticity of the I as the interloque and adonne. 3)
Finally, in both the theological and the phenomenological thought of the gift,
reception coincides inextricably with a regiving or repetition of the gift.113

109. Ibid., 202.

110. Ibid., 202.

111. Ibid., 212.

112. Ibid., 212-213.

113. Ibid., 228-229.


In spite of these ambiguities, Carlson identifies several areas of intersection between

the phenomenological thought of Derrida and Marion, while ascribing their differences to the
theological levels of their thought. At the center of their thought, they “approach gift and
givenness in and through figures of 'the impossible' which generates thought, language, and
desire precisely because it ever eludes them.”114 Carlson argues that the theological
framework can build around the generosity of the Good beyond Being: “the thought and
language that are possible, that we live and experience, circle in endless desire around that
which remains utterly impossible – the comprehend, speak, and e sated b the Good that ever
remains to be thought, named, desired.”115 This correlates with a thanatological framework of
death as the possibility of the impossible, where “death becomes a figure of the absolute gift
in the sense that death marks a possibility that can never be realized in experience, the
horizon of all possibility that itself remains at every moment possible and thus marks the
Both the Good beyond Being and death provide for understanding the differences
between Marion and Derrida in their approaches to the gift in terms of the impossible.
Derrida privileges the impossible in death, and thus seemingly focuses on a radical lack or
absence, whereas Marion privileges the impossible in revelation, and thus seemingly on
plenitude and presence. However, both Derrida and Marion's approaches suggest to Carlson,
“the excess of 'the impossible' out rightly to exceed any such decision between plenitude and
lack, revelation or death.”117 This leads Carlson to develop in his conclusion an apophatic
analogy of relation, which goes beyond the scope of these notes at this time.

Derrida's Relevance for Theology

While the debate between Derrida and Marion is relevant for a philosophy of
religions, an underlying question concerns the relevance of Derrida and deconstruction for
theology. Derrida has often been considered irrelevant or too irreverent for consideration by
theologians. However, Graham Ward argues for the relevance of Derrida for theology, and in
particular for him to be taken seriously as something more than another atheistic or nihilistic

114. Ibid., 229.

115. Ibid.

116. Ibid.

117. Ibid., 231.


fad within contemporary thought.118 The work that had been done on his philosophic
influences and development, as well as the context provided a basis for dialogue with
theology. In addition, Derrida had, at that time, begun his shift towards more explicitly
theological themes and statements.
Ward “distinguish[es] between the negative and the positive values for theology of
Derrida's economy of the sign (or the way language functions).”119 He begins with an
explanation of différance, “which is both a process and the condition for a process. . . . The
word interweaves two families of meaning – to differ and to defer, and it is the deferral of
meaning involved when any one word means something only its relation to all that is differs
from, that is the basis of the process, the economy.”120 A word therefore functions as both a
signifier and part of a system of language which gives the word the power to signify, and
“this is what is meant by 'writing' – words are inscribed, they are part of a system of signs.
Janus-like they face two directions – the object out there and themselves as objects within a
particular lexicon and grammar.”121
When this is brought to theology, “différance draws attention to the face that theology
cannot make dogmatic claims about God, not without also accepting that it speaks with and
through metaphors. . . . it demands that they recognize that they are not, nor ever can be,
unequivocal statements of truth. The value given to them as true is a commitment of faith.”122
Quoting from Kevin Hart's Trespass of the Sign, “it [deconstruction] does supply us with a
rather more secure position from which to inquire about negative theology's relation to
language.” He then goes on to state that, “différance makes plain that theology has always
been and will always remain impossible.”123
Drawing out further the implications of différance to core concepts within theological
discourse, Ward notes that basic concepts of revelation and eschatology benefit from the
privileged position provided them by metaphysical discourse, of which one must be
suspicious in drawing or deriving truth-claims:

118. Graham Ward, “Why is Derrida Important for Theology?” Theology 95.766 (July 1992): 263-270.

119. Ibid., 264.

120. Ibid.

121. Ibid., 265.

122. Ibid.

123. Ibid. The original quote is from Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction,, Theology
and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University, 2000), 96.

Revelation and eschatology both posit moments of immediate reception, of God

speaking to his creation directly, without the distortion of that communication being
mediated. Derrida's work draws attention to the way metaphysics has privileged
presence, the transparency of direct communication and immediacy. . . . Différance
emphasizes that presentation – the kind of presentation required for the advent of
revelation or the advent of the revealed one (the eschatological telos) – is always, and
irredeemably, contaminated by re-presentation.124

This eliminates claims which privilege revelation or eschatology as a priori answers to

questions of faith and doctrine.
The elimination of these claims arises because revelation and salvation are already
represented and already “texts” (defined as any system of signs alleging to communicate).
The believer lives thus between revelation and the eschaton: “The economy of différance is
also the epoch of différance, so that time and experience lie between an irretrievable
beginning (a non-original origin) and a postponed but presupposed end. Theologically we live
('Deconstruction is life'), both historically and existentially, between the Incarnation and the
Having sketched some of the negative appropriations of Derrida's work, Ward
proceeds to some of the positive appropriations. The first concerns opening the way for
clarifying the relationship between metaphysics and theology: “If metaphysical discourse is
constituted by its attention to Being and presence and this is rendered questionable by
différance, then theological thinking moves beyond such questioning, moves beyond this
place outside metaphysics that différance located. But in moving beyond différance, theology
has to recognize that it is reading by faith, for différance marks the limit (la fin) of what we
can know.”126 Deconstruction thus creates space for “faith as a desire which is complicit with
questioning”127 and therefore builds upon knowledge but is not rationally derived simply from
a priori metaphysical presumptions.
The questions which occupy the attention of Theologians are also not foreign to
Derrida's own reflections and concerns: “If the economy of our language, the movement of
our representations, issues from the play between presence and absence, metaphysics and the
materialism of the sin, then there can be no sharp distinction between the sacred and the

124. Ibid., 266.

125. Ibid.

126. Ibid., 267.

127. Ibid.

secular.”128 Speaking about God and not speaking about God are both part of our language
and the discussion: “Derrida writes that the 'intelligible face f the sign remains turned towards
the Word and the face of God. And since there can be no denial of the intelligible face of the
sign, it can only be questioned and its meaning deferred. Différance continually sharpens the
presence of the Word and gives weight to the unerasable nature of the theological.”129)
The unerasable nature of the theological was part of Derrida's exploration in the
1980s. The first concerns the “yes [which] is the transcendental condition of all performative
dimensions. A promise, an oath, an order, a commitment always implies a yes.”130 Then,
Derrida also began “to define the theological within Heidegger . . . [by] discussing the nature
of questioning in Heidegger and associates it with the movement of the spirit.”131 Finally, the
discussion in Heidegger brings Derrida back to différance which defers the quest and inquiry.
Ward ends with a discussion of the implications for his discussion, which argues that
the theological and the economy of différance are not isolated from one another. He notes the
turn towards the theological in Derrida is “a recognition of the indispensability of theological
reflection for Derrida's understanding of deconstruction.”132 He suggests, therefore, that
theologians reverse this insight and realize the indispensability of deconstruction for modern

The question [opened and kept in play by différance] marks the limit of metaphysical
speculation, but not of theological thinking. Theological thinking, thinking about and
within the work of God, begins where philosophy ends; it begins in faith, and faith is
the response to the sandal of the question. It seems to me that recently Derrida has
been exploring the theology complicit in questioning. . . . He [Derrida] is increasingly
aware of the theology complicit in the open-endedness of the question, the
interminable quest which différance manifests and promotes.133

It is this final point that opens up the theologian to itself as beginning with a yes to a God
who is also the future beyond the yes and the no. If theology is to understand itself as not
simply a rationality, then it may begin with the event of the “yes” which carries us into a
mystery which is actually beyond any seeming contradiction that must be reconciled.
Différance and deconstruction may help to keep the theologian honest in the pursuit of truth
128. Ibid.

129. Ibid., 267-268.

130. Ibid., 268.

131. Ibid.

132. Ibid., 268-269.

133. Ibid., 268.


and to remember to bound truth with the good and beautiful, as well as in describing a God is
not simply indescribable but even beyond description.