Book Review: Sounding Out Philosophical Idols

June 01, 2006

Book Review: Sounding Out Philosophical Idols

How did you react when you first heard those words; ‘God is dead’?  If you have read it, what did you feel, think, how did you react when you first read Nietzsche’s dramatic picture of the madman?

 Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God!  I seek God!”  As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter.  Why, did he get lost? said one.  Did he lose his way like a child? said another.  Or is he hiding?  Is he afraid of us?  Is he gone on a voyage? or emigrated?  Thus they yelled and laughed.  The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Whither is God?” he cried.  “I shall tell you.  We have killed him – you and I.  All of us are his murderers.  … God is dead.”[1]

Your reaction may have been different, but I, certainly, was intrigued.  The madman was fascinating.  He obviously wasn’t saying something that people wanted to hear, and yet, the people who respond to the madman do not believe in God anyway.  They laugh and jeer at him.  Besides a personal statement of atheism, which doesn’t have much further point of application, what was Nietzsche saying here?  I wanted to know more, I wanted to know why.

Fast forward a century or so from Nietzsche’s time, and his words are still echoing around us as parts of our culture struggle with their Christian heritage.  And perhaps Nietzsche is still as misunderstood.  For Christians, instead of taking part in a mindless kind of retribution and triumphalism by declaring ‘Nietzsche is dead’, perhaps engaging with Nietzsche’s thinking is fruitful for Christians to do. 

Ultimately, this is a question of what use philosophy is to theology, and vice versa.  What do Athens and Jerusalem, as it has been famously asked, have in common?  Do they have anything to say to each other, and is it any use?  You may not be a philosopher, or a theologian for that matter; so, does this question concern you? 

The intersection between theology and philosophy is the concern of Bruce Ellis Benson’s Graven Ideologies.  Benson argues that Christians ignore the questions of Nietzsche and those philosophers who follow in his wake, at our peril. Specifically, Benson explores what is commonly termed the ‘death of western metaphysics’, parallel to the death of God that Nietzsche proclaimed, and the groundswell of critiques in this vein that have occurred since then.  As he explores these arguments, Benson is wholly concerned with how we can speak about God, without simply turning him into a larger version of ourselves; that is, an idol caste in our own image.

This tradition, and indeed philosophy in general, Benson argues, is concerned with idolatry.  Nietzsche describes himself as taking a hammer – not a sledgehammer, but a tuning hammer – and experimentally tapping it against concepts, to see if they ring true, or ring hollow, to see if those things that we base our lives, our hopes, our morality on, are idols.  Philosophy, in Nietzsche’s hands, is a practice of sounding out idols.  Benson goes on to trace not only Nietzsche’s forays into idol detection, but also those in his wake; focusing on Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion, but also with stop overs on Emmanuel Levinas, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.  Graven Ideologies therefore forms an excellent introduction to these thinkers; his readings of them are impressively nuanced and well argued, without being inaccessible nor compromising his thinking as a Christian.  In fact, Benson uses these thinkers to strengthen his – and our – conceptions of what it means to be a Christian. 

Christians are, of course, concerned with idolatry.  I don’t even mean the obvious type – golden calves, bronze snakes – I mean conceptual idols.  That is, thinking of God in such a way that the god we think we know is no god at all; “conceptual idolatry is either the creation or the adoption of a concept or idea that we take to be equivalent to God and thus worship as God.”  (p.19)  Note that it is our creation, our adoption.  We are susceptible to creating a god who looks like us.

Philosophy is likewise concerned with idolatry because, like religion, it is itself very susceptible to it.  The towers we build of our own logic and rationalising can often be impressive and grand in scope, but ring like a bell when struck with that tuning hammer.  If we apply such tests to our conceptions of God, and they sound hollow under an experimental tap, then deconstructing such an idol is essential.  As Benson points out, Christians are to follow the disciple’s directive; Little children, keep yourselves from idols.[2]

For some it may come as some surprise that idolatry is not limited to Christians and those philosophers who happen to take an interest in religious ideas.  Everyone is implicated in it.  Even when a discourse claims to be atheistic, it has taken part in ‘Western metaphysics’, and as such, contains idols to be deconstructed.  These are the ‘graven ideologies’ of the books title.  The history of western philosophy – and by extension western society – has been the history “of an attempt to achieve a sense of totality through a mastery of experiences.” (p.112)  This results, as Levinas argues, in a kind of ethical violence towards the ‘other’.  That is, towards human others, and, ultimately, towards God.  This works itself out in systematising and reducing – and thus controlling – phenomena, and ‘being’ itself, to be understandable on my terms, my logos.  That is, I make it look like me, I determine, limit, and circumscribe God.  This move is what Heidegger termed “onto-theology”. 

This would seem to make philosophy unattractive, and that it would be wisest to steer clear of it – to keep Athens and Jerusalem separate after all.  But it is not so simple, it is not so easy to disentangle them, but nor is it, Benson argues, either necessary, or in the event, possible.  Jean-Luc Marion suggests submitting a human logos to the divine Logos, a logos that precedes any other, thus creating a theo-ontology.  Although this has possibilities, Benson isn’t content with the simple reversal of onto-theology, and thinks that to deny logoi in this way not only robs Jesus of his power – by making him appear in a conceptual vacuum – but by also denying that reason, the human logos is likewise a gift, and not grounded in ourselves.  Moreover, removing philosophical discourses from our language, were it possible, does not insure us against the creation of idols.  Their deceptive nature always sees them return in another form. 

Instead, Benson suggests that “there is no obvious reason that philosophy need take the form of an all-controlling logos.” (p.237)  In fact, he argues, that when it does, it ceases to be philosophy – a love of wisdom.  Reason that does not recognise its limits is not very reasonable at all.   The solution is not to avoid philosophy altogether, but rather to “arrest philosophical discourse”, as Levinas puts it, with more philosophising.  To avoid idolatry, to avoid “vain philosophy”, as Paul’s letter to the Colossians says.  Benson wants us to use philosophy to sound out our idols.

Benson finishes his book by asking how, then, can we presume to witness to God.  He points out Paul’s description of God’s inscrutability, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counsellor?  Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?”[3]  And yet, as Paul has written, there has been a gift, one that is impossible to repay.  God has descended to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Rather than an idol, Jesus is the eikon - the icon, the image - of the invisible God.  Impossibly, he makes the invisible seen.  With man it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

Theology then, in a sense, is impossible, but its very power to speak is in its impossibility, rather than in its systematising control.  In testifying to that impossibility, we make space for God to speak through us.  It is not that we master and control the truth, but that it masters and sounds us out.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (1882), trans. Walter Kaufmann.
[1] 1 John 5:21
[1] Romans 11: 34-35

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